What do Ms. McCullough’s poems signify? How can speech act? How are actions inhabited/inhibited by speech? Who’s on first, noun or verb? Penis or vagina? Sex or love or both? Or an avocado that might taste like vanilla? Who’s Ms. McCullough in these pages?
There’s sex, lots of it. Oral sex especially, every which way. Love, too, sometimes. Big questions now and then. Some fun, some joy. Sharp observations. Analogies, some extreme. Leaps, many of them long. His and hers and what goes on between a him and a her, and who are we, anyway, behind our faces and down in our guts and further down and deeper inside?
Ms. M roils around in the stuff of these questions, and comes (four times in one poem) up with, not exactly answers, but often enough, clarity, light, and warmth, especially in Part III of this three-part book.
Part I, consisting of eighteen poems, almost all one-page or less but using many different forms, is lively, lots of pizzazz and language razzle-dazzle. Titles alone are worth the price of linguistic admission, like “Speechification,” “Giving Good Bard,” “What is the Phoneme of Forgiveness?” There are many playfully serious passages, as “Roll / your pig’s tail around my little / finger, word slop our fodder” and “Is language our sexiest proboscis?” plus “the accordion in this poem / has asthma, and I’m wheezing.” Many snappy endings. Fun to read, mostly. The risk in such poems, many of which are about poetry-writing and poets, about language itself, is the possibility of emptying out emotional substance. The poet ends up with a dazzling surface and not much underneath.
The language in Part II is still snazzy but less riff-like, less surfacy and more in the service of mostly darker subject matter—beaten animals, whales on the verge of extinction, decapitation, even the “Body of a Dead Spider” which “appeared like a small, dried flower / or a seed pod of a certain kind of flower, / like the inside of a star fruit.” As well as astute psychological/philosophical/linguistic ruminations, Ms. M produces many such precisely beautiful descriptions/analogies.
Part III turns more personal; Ms. M’s “I” is more vulnerable here, more needy, wiser but less smart-alecky, and the metaphors and analogies unforced, apt, often feelingful. Her persona reflects less on the mysteries of identity and its relationship with language in favor of more direct expression: “Today, they gave a woman a new face, / the skin peeled from an anonymous man” and “I stood behind a woman / who didn’t have enough money / and had no cards to back her up.” There’s the feel of a grandmother’s kiss, a man with soft hands “the tips shooting light,” the sweetly domestic “All Day I Love You,” about resting with a husband, his feet on the chest of Ms. M, or her persona. My favorite poem in this section, “Beauty, I Said” could go up on the refrigerator door of just about any semi-happy, long-partnered couple. It begins:
I never said that thing you said
I said that time when we were dancing
and everyone was so drunk no one
remembers what anyone said.
The poem goes on to consider consciousness, beauty, re-animation, the vicissitudes of memory and the shifting self, and ends poignantly. The last poem in the collection, “Like Milk,” has a similar sweetly yearning ending:
spilling on my cheeks, my shirt dry, but
my face needing to be licked if you think
you can stand doing it just one more time.
So, flurries of razzle-dazzle and pizzazz, sure, and lots of signification, but frequently there’s something more in this collection, something lovely and substantial.